Finland elections test for young Prime Minister

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Campaign posters of the municipal elections on the roadside in Espoo, Finland, on May 25, 2021.
Campaign posters of the municipal elections on the roadside in Espoo, Finland, on May 25, 2021.   -  Copyright  Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva via AP

Finland holds local elections on Sunday in a first litmus test for the popular young Social Democratic prime minister, Sanna Marin.

Marin, 35, took office a mere 18 months ago shortly before the outbreak of COVID-19 and enjoys high personal popularity but her party is behind in the polls.

Despite her popularity, the Social Democrats have failed to attract young voters in particular. Two opposition parties, the conservative National Coalition Party and the populist Finns Party, are in the lead in the polls.

The vote to renew local councils in Finland’s more than 300 municipalities is seen as a catalyst for parties’ popularity as they wait for the 2023 parliamentary election. Stakes are higher this time because the elections were postponed by two months due to COVID-19, and because of the tensions inside Marin’s centre-left, five-party governing coalition.

In April, it was near collapse because a senior coalition member — the centrist Centre Party — threatened to leave the government in a dispute over spending. Only persistent negotiations saved Marin's Cabinet from collapsing but political analysts said scars and ideological differences are running deep between the Social Democrats and the centrists.

The main themes dominating the local election are the government’s planned social and health care reform in municipalities, taxation and the implications of Finland’s COVID-19 exit strategy.

Since the start of the pandemic, Finland has recorded just under 94,000 cases with 964 deaths, which are among the lowest figures in Europe. An improved situation means Marin's government has been able to ease some restrictions and the country is reopening.

In Helsinki, the capital, the most acute question is who should become the next mayor of the city of 630,000 people. The conservatives are trying to stay in power — which they have held for decades — while the Greens are closing in, followed by Marin’s Social Democrats.

A poll commissioned by the Finnish public broadcaster YLE showed on Thursday that, nationwide, the National Coalition Party would garner some 19.6% of votes, the Finns Party 18% and the Social Democrats 17% of votes, which is 1.1 percentage points lower than in previous elections.

A third of eligible voters, or some 1.5 million people, had already voted in advance by the Tuesday deadline.